Taking the Plunge

From ballet outreach participant to serious trainee

Lakshmanath Raju Sawak (#308) landed a part in ABT's Nutcracker.

With a ready and relaxed smile, Lakshmanath Raju Sawak—Raju to his friends—seems remarkably composed, well beyond his 10 years. Just days before he makes his professional debut as the adorable little mouse in American Ballet Theatre’s new Nutcracker, he’s handling an interview with aplomb. “I decided to try ballet because it’s something I had never done before,” he says matter-of-factly. But Raju’s introduction to ballet was slightly unconventional. It began when American Ballet Theatre’s outreach program came to his elementary school. Now, with encouragement from his teachers and support from his family, he’s enrolled in the children’s division at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

In many ways Raju’s story exemplifies a successful transition from K–12 outreach student to serious ballet trainee. Arts education outreach programs have become increasingly important to budget-deprived schools. Ballet companies across the country, including ABT, New Orleans Ballet Association, The Washington Ballet and Boston Ballet, offer dance to students in underserved communities. As students learn first position and pliés, teachers from all of these programs keep an eye out for kids who have the ballet spark ignited in them and might be ready to make the transition from a once- or twice-a-week dance enrichment experience to a more intense ballet training program. Of course, there is no magic formula that transforms an interested student into the next Baryshnikov. But in most cases, success stems from the support of teachers and parents working together. “It’s a real ‘takes a village’–type situation,” says Dennis Walters, director of educational outreach at ABT.

Katrina Toews, director of The Washington Ballet’s community engagement program, says her dance teachers look for students with natural facility: good flexibility, strong feet, body awareness. But they also value desire and drive. “There are occasions where we will take children who might not have all the physical criteria, but are academically smart and really enjoy ballet,” Toews says, “or kids who have had significant behavioral issues, and by doing ballet have changed their view of themselves. We want to support that.” To help students make the leap, Toews says the program facilitates conversations among all the stakeholders: classroom teachers, outreach coordinators, school principals and family members.

ABT’s program relies heavily on its own staff and classroom teachers to identify potentially interested students. “We’ve had teachers call us and say, ‘I have this student, he’s interested and has the family support,’” Walters says. “Or, ‘This girl looks like she has a lot of talent and she’s serious about wanting to dance.’”

Though ABT works with students of all ages through high school, Walters concedes that it’s easier for younger students to make the transition. “It’s a little harder if you find someone who’s a sophomore or junior in high school,” he says. “They might be placed in levels with much younger kids because they’ve been training for such a short period of time.” Discussing these issues with outreach students in advance and building close relationships with them helps assuage these challenges. “There’s a lot of mentorship,” he says.

Margaret Tracy, director of the Boston Ballet School, notes that one of the keys to success is a slow and carefully plotted transition into more rigorous training. Citydance, the school’s outreach program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, introduces thousands of Boston public school students to a wide range of dance and music. Out of these interactions, a couple hundred students are selected to attend an additional, free 10-week program at Boston Ballet’s studios. During this time, the students get more in-depth ballet training, and introductions to other styles, from flamenco to modern to Chinese dance. All of these students are then invited to participate in Boston Ballet School’s five-week beginner ballet program, an immersion that prepares them to be integrated into the school year-round. The steady progression from introduction to workshop to immersion gives teachers the chance to assess each student’s depth of interest at each stage.

Though they may be motivated to pursue further training, many outreach students face financial hurdles. New Orleans Ballet Association works in collaboration with the New Orleans Recreation Department to provide free after-school ballet classes to kids ages 6 to 18, most of whom come from low-income households. To remedy the situation, the company provides tights, leotards and shoes, if needed, to after-school students who are invited to participate in the pre-professional program.

Above all, family support is crucial. Select students from The Washington Ballet’s outreach programs are invited to attend a more intense school-year program, which takes place at D.C.’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). The company used to bus students from their schools to THEARC studios and back, but it soon realized that this kept the dance teachers from connecting with parents, which resulted in fewer students making the jump to the year-round ballet school. So the company did away with the buses and instead concentrated on finding kids with families that would help them get to class.

“What we’ve seen over the past two years is that parents are understanding that their children get a lot out of it and really want to come to ballet,” Toews says. “They recognize the value and are willing to make sacrifices. They communicate with us more directly, and that allows us to start creating a relationship.” DT


A former dancer, now teacher, Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

Teachers Trending
Photo by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern ­dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.